Like a tribal warrior in the Ramayana, throwing dice, juiced on soma, I want to tell some stories and brood out loud. But it’s tricky. My favorite stories are all about what they did to me. What I’ve done to myself, I am inclined to repress, sublimate or rationalize. Once upon a time, I was a Wunderkind. Now I’m an Old Fart. In between I’ve done time at National Review, Pacifica Radio and The Nation; the New York Times and Condé Nast; New York magazine during and after Rupert Murdoch; National Public Radio and the Columbia Broadcasting System. I was a columnist for Esquire, whenever Dwight Macdonald failed to turn in his “Politics” essay; at the old weekly Life before it died for People‘s sins; at Newsweek before the Times made me stop contributing to a wholly owned subsidiary of its principal competitor; at Ms. during its Australian walkabout interim; and at New York Newsday before it was so rudely “disappeared” by a Times-Mirror CEO fresh to journalism from the Hobbesian underworlds of microwave popcorn and breakfast-cereal sugar-bombs. And I have written for anyone who ever asked me at newspapers like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Boston Globe, at magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue and Playboy, and at dot-coms like Salon. I like to think of myself as having published in the New York Review, The New Statesman, the Yale Review and Tikkun. But there was also TV Guide.
This sounds less careerist than sluttish. It is, however, a sluttishness probably to be expected of someone who had to make a living after he discovered that the novels he reviewed were a lot better than the novels he wrote. We may belong to what the poet Paul Valéry called “the delirious professions”–by which Valéry meant “all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of one’s self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you”–but reporters, critics and “cultural journalists,” no less than publicists, are caged birds in a corporate canary-cage. Looking back, I see what I required of my employers was that they cherish my every word and leave me alone. If I understand what Warren Beatty was trying to tell us in the movie Reds, it is that John Reed only soured on the Russian Revolution after they fucked with his copy.
On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin once explained:
The great majority of intellectuals–particularly in the arts–are in a desperate plight. The fault lies, however, not with their character, pride, or inaccessibility. Journalists, novelists, and literati are for the most part ready for every compromise. It’s just that they do not realize it. And this is the reason for their failures. Because they do not know, or want to know, that they are venal, they do not understand that they should separate out those aspects of their opinions, experiences, and modes of behavior that might be of interest to the market. Instead, they make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on every issue. Because they want to be sold, so to speak, only “in one piece,” they are as unsalable as a calf that the butcher will sell to the housewife only as an undivided whole.
I throw in Walter Benjamin, who killed himself a step ahead of Hitler, to muss the hair of the academics among you. Having been to too many conferences where working reporters and media theorists reach an angry adjournment of minds before the first coffee break, I seek to ingratiate myself. If it’ll help to wear a Heidegger safari jacket, Foucault platform heels, Lacan epaulets and a Walter Benjamin boutonniere, I’m willing to bring the Frankfurtives and the Frenchifieds. Indeed, the production process of every major news-gathering organization can be thought of–in Foucault’s terms–as an allegory of endless domination, like hangmen torturing murderers or doctors locking up deviants. And whether they know it consciously or not, these organizations are in the “corrective technologies” business of beating down individuals to “neutralize” their “dangerous states”–to create “docile bodies and obedient souls.” How we escape their “numbing codes of discipline,” if we ever do, is more problematic. Somehow, art, dreams, drugs, madness, “erotic transgression,” “secret self-ravishment” and going postal seldom add up to an “insurrection of unsubjugated knowledges.” I like to think of myself as Patsy Cline. I sang the same sad country songs before I ever got to the Grand Ole Opry. After the Grand Ole Opry, I can always go back to the honky-tonks.